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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On obscenities and homelands

"Obscenity: the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland."
This is Milan Kundera going one step further from Czeslaw Milosz who famously wrote that language is the only homeland. I love Kundera's ability to get into the core of an issue with a pithy definition. I bumped into this one while browsing his "Art of the Novel" and I could not stop laughing.

What he describes is a familiar sentiment to all of us who have been uprooted out of our native linguistic context and into a second or a third language. Swearing in a foreign language? No problem! It carries almost no weight. You say the words just like any other words because you are detached. You don't feel them as bad, inappropriate, or harsh.

In my own language, on the other hand, I use them with utmost care. Don't ask me to teach you to swear in Serbian because I won't--first, because Serbian curses are really harsh and, second, because there is a proper context for swearing and that, for me, always involves being home (as in, home in Serbia). Out of that context, it doesn't feel right.

It is funny, when I am irritated or angry, I use a Bulgarian expression "po dyavolite" which means "to hell." Now, to Ruslan this is extremely rude and he reprimands me every time. My other Bulgarian friends say this is an old-fashioned curse which almost doesn't feel like one, it is kind of charmingly outdated. That's how I feel about it, too.

The Serbian equivalent "dodjavola" (it has identical meaning) is so light, I don't think anyone would consider it an obscenity. In fact, I bet people would just burst out laughing at it. But then it is true that we are a nation which curses a lot, and a general threshold of tolerance to using "bad language" is much higher than in other places I lived.

In Serbia, swearing is weaved seamlessly into conversations, whether it's a friendly banter or a serious discussion (as for arguments, that goes without saying). It completely cuts across class, geographical origin or education--you can't pigeonhole people based on swearing because everyone does swear a lot, from manual workers to university professors. It's one true democratic pursuit.

That's one thing that has been a cultural shock for Ruslan and I don't think he managed to get used to it even after all these years. Our cultures are otherwise incredibly similar, our languages very much alike, most of our idiomatic expressions are the same and, generally, we have very similar "mentality," except for this one difference that we curse a lot and, somehow, they don't. Why is that?

Monday, November 16, 2009

In the mail

I would like to dispel a notion some of you might have (especially if you are Ruslan) that all that ever arrives to our mailbox as a result of online shopping are shoes (and occasionally clothes). It would be so wrong to think that because I actually enjoy buying books (and occasionally music) much more.

After all, shoes are a necessity, so we are talking very low levels of the Maslow pyramid here. And finding the right ones--well, that's just hard work, as any woman would tell you. Really, no fun at all.

Books, on the other hand, are sheer pleasure. To say that I like to read would be an understatement; I also like to see our library grow, although the space is a limiting factor there. When I dream of my own place, the first thing I visualise is a library taking up an entire wall, from the floor to the ceiling.

So, today, three new additions to the library have just arrived:

The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera

I read this one back in high school but felt like re-visiting. I like Kundera a lot--he is not heavy artillery like Nabokov or Danilo Kis, but he is witty and somehow manages to stay on this side of (over) simplification. A perfect re-reading material.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Jorge Amado

I don't know much about this author except that he is Brazilian. I discovered one of his books, "Gabriella, clove and cinnamon" in Ruslan's father's library, in Bulgarian, and I read it practically in one go. It was fantastic and I even re-read it last summer. I decided that I had to get something else from Amado and, voila. Let's see if Dona Flor rises up to expectations.

Langford's Basic Photography: The Guide for Serious Photographers

After just a tiny bit of browsing, I can say that this one is very promising and also very different from both Scott Kelby and Brian Petersen. It really is for people with a nerdy scientific slant, as there are a lot of technical details about how a camera works, the role of light, etc. Just what I have been looking for! An in-depth look will follow in the next installment of the analogue experiment series.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The analogue experiment, take 2

I finally developed the second roll of film that I shot with our Canon 2000, so it is time for a review.

For a start, it's far less disappointing than the first batch, although I am still making some beginner's mistakes, like, for instance, having subjects out of focus. I have a picture of Andrej standing by the pool with ducks in the zoo--I wanted his face to be in focus, but instead I focused on the ducks. How did that happen? I think I need to learn how to focus on subjects which are not in the center of the frame, but rather to the left or right of it.

I did learn something from that first film and that is not to go for big apertures when shooting on bright sunny days at noon. In fact, I also learned that it is probably a good idea not to shoot at all on a bright sunny day at noon, because the shadows are unforgiving, and everything looks very harsh, especially human faces. So I graduated from washed out to harsh, which is not ideal, but let's agree to call it a step in the right direction.

In the meantime my "Understanding Exposure" by Brian Petersen arrived, and I read it almost in one go. I liked his approach more than that of Scott Kelby (whose books I browsed in Julochka's Blue Room during Blog Camp 2.0) but the problem is I don't like his photos much--they look cliched. And while I like the way he describes exposure and the interplay between the light and aperture, shutter speed and ISO, I think by now I know enough of the basics and I want to go a bit further (if that makes sense).

Of course, what do I do then but reach for another book. This time I did my own snooping around Amazon and I came across something called "Langford's Basic Photography: The guide for serious photographers." The "serious" bit got me (such an easy marketing prey) and then one of the reviews mentioned something about having to have a "scientific slant" to appreciate the book and that sealed the deal.

Finally, last time I was moaning about analogue experiment number 1 Kristina asked me to at least post some images of my photos (since I can't post the originals, them being on paper). So here they are, snaps of the snaps:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gray vs. red

Drizzle, drizzle. Chilly wind. Oppressive gray skies.

In other words, November. Definitely the worst month of the year, with a narrow win over February, which has the advantage of spring being round the corner. With November, it's many months of sheer grayness ahead.

The only way to fight this overwhelming gray is to inject a mega-dose of red in your life.

Like this pair of wellies, fresh from the post and right in time. When I showed them to Ruslan he said, in slight disapproval: "But why do you need them when it rains so rarely here?" (clearly, he overslept the month of June, when it rained so much that the Danube flooded). Those were rash words as the very next day it started drizzling and hasn't stopped since.

If you don't have a pair of cool, red rainboots at hand (or, better yet, at leg)--well, you definitely should get one pronto. In the meantime, you can go for a little bit of red in a glass.

I'm not claiming it will make November any less gray, but a few of these and at least you're guaranteed not to bother. Or notice.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Twenty years after the Wall...another wall

Horgos border crossing between Serbia and Hungary

I don't remember much about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I don't think it has anything to do with my age.

Although I was only twelve, I have clear recollections of the Romanian revolution just a month later and seeing the execution of Ceausescu on public television. It was shocking, it was closer to home, and it was the real end of socialism (bloody, controversial and a portent of things to come on our side of the border).

I don't remember any of the adults in my life being euphoric about bringing down the Wall, because the Wall has never really been about us. Yugoslavia was nested comfortably in some artificial middle ground, neither East nor West, complacent in its home-grown brand of socialism (or "socialism") fuelled by Western money. The generation of my parents had much more freedom than their peers in Hungary, East Germany or Bulgaria, at least when it came to travel. And people did travel, if only for shopping tours to places like Trieste and Munich--silly, maybe, but they could do it. They might have felt all kinds of things, but "walled-in" was hardly one of them.

Fast forward twenty years and Europe is a whole different place. In two hours you can drive from Budapest to Vienna, passing by the old border post which has no function anymore, except as a reminder of the old times. No one will stop you to ask for your passport, check your visa, count your money, rummage through your luggage, ask about where you are going and how long you plan to stay. If you catch a train from Budapest to Bratislava the only way you know you have changed countries is that the information voice coming from the speakers suddenly stops speaking Hungarian and switches to Slovak. It's only been two years that countries like Hungary and Slovakia joined the no-border zone but you get used to it so quickly.

It is easy to forget that things could be any different--until you reach Horgos, the border crossing between Hungary and Serbia, the end of the no-border zone and beginning of the twilight zone. Maybe you are not aware of it, but Berlin Wall has simply moved a little bit more east and nowadays it goes by the name of Schengen Agreement.

Horgos is where Europe without borders abruptly ends and a nightmare called "applying for a Schengen visa" begins. True, there is no barbed wire and grumpy East German soldiers around (just a bunch of grumpy Hungarians and ever-so-laid-back Serbians) but that's because the Wall now has a more subtle face--that of an embassy clerk processing your visa application, deciding if you merit being allowed in. If you happen to be Serbian, Albanian, Macedonian (not to mention hailing from further east) Europe without borders is something that happens to other (more deserving?) Europeans.

I am now living on the "right" side of the border and, boy, am I happy about that. But until my sister can come visit from Belgrade any time she damned well pleases, and just because she feels like it, without having to plan half a year in advance and collect a million papers to prove something to someone--until then, the Wall is not down yet. Not for all of us.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A language lost

My Grandmother and auntie

Recently I read an article in The Guardian about small languages dying out and what, if anything, could be done to prevent that. I am not a speaker of a language threatened by extinction (although my Serbian vocabulary has been depleted over years like depleted uranium) but there is a language that was once spoken in my family and is now lost--namely, German.

It was the native language of my ancestors on my Mother's side of the family but my Grandmother is the last speaker. At least she was, but now she can hardly put a few sentences together, although she probably understands more than she can speak. I didn't think it was possible to forget your mother tongue but knowing how much my Serbian has deteriorated over the past ten years I can see how it could happpen. After all, she has had no one to talk to in German for almost sixty years. And as she didn't pass it to her children--my mother, aunt and uncle--the knowledge will perish with her.

Now that I am trying to pass my own language to Boris and Andrej--their only tentative link with my homeland, which is not quite theirs--I am thinking more often about that lost link with my ancestors. It is as if a piece of the identity puzzle is missing; a small piece, maybe, but still a door to a completely different world that I never got to know.

Ironically, I have never felt any affinity towards German language or culture--a complete lack of curiosity on my part. Instead, I fell in love with English at the age of nine and I have been firmly entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking ever since. But that missed opportunity for an insider glimpse into one of the most important European cultures is something that I now regret.

Although, if you ask my friends they will tell you I am German enough as it is, but that's only because punctuality and (self) discipline tend to be in short supply where I come from. Which tells us far more about the Balkans than it does about the Germans.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Documenting pain

Some time ago we went to see the World Press Photo exhibition, as we have done for the past six years or so. World Press Photo is a worldwide competition where professional press photographers can submit their images that cover not just the news but also nature, sports, science and everyday life.

Inevitably, in any given year, most of the images are those of war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It's not for the feeble-hearted, nor those with utopistic ideas of world peace. Those are the pictures I like least, and I try not to dwell on them too much; I prefer all other categories but the news.

This year there were two particular images that had me thinking long after we left the exhibition venue. One of them was of a wounded African soldier, blood spurting out of his mouth and the look of hysterical terror on his face; another one was of a man holding a dead friend or relative, screaming in desperation.

Both pictures were close-ups. Both had me thinking: was this really necessary? Not the mindless killing, which goes without saying, but sticking up a camera in someone's face when they are dying, or going mad with grief. Is this ethical? Don't people have the right to dignity when they are most vulnerable?

I wonder what was going on in the minds of those photographers as they were snapping--is it simply work for them and they switch off basic human compassion? I think there are many ways to document the atrocities, be it of war or disasters, without getting this close to personal pain.